I recently found myself at a country-house hotel in the throes of a New Year detox retreat. Obviously I wasn’t on this retreat myself – my idea of relaxation is a bracing walk to the nearest pub, and this lot seemed to be rather keener on yoga and herbal infusions – but our worlds collided each morning at the communal breakfast table.
On day two, as I tucked in to my fried eggs, laid by the estate’s own hens and served with home-cured bacon and wilted greens, I heard one of the yogis ask if there was any sugar in the chia seed granola they’d been offered instead. Oh no, the waitress said, just our own honey and apple juice. Famished by her early-morning salutations to the sun, the poor soul fell upon the bowl with gusto, or at least a weak approximation of it. Don’t, my friend hissed at me over her coffee. Please, just don’t.
And, because we were on holiday and I’m trying to be a better person this year, I held my tongue. I didn’t ask the group what they thought made honey or apple juice sweet if not sugar, or why, if they were here to lose weight, they’d chosen coconut yoghurt rather than the considerably less calorific dairy variety.
Perhaps, I told myself, some were coeliac, and that grim-looking gluten-free bread was their only (tragic) option. But I couldn’t help itching to tell the rest the good news they’d clearly missed since withdrawing from the world: sisters, clean eating is dead! Have a croissant if you want – turns out that wheat won’t kill you after all.
Though 2017 hasn’t had the brightest of starts, one tiny chink of light has begun to appear in the form of this backlash, helped by the dawning realisation that a number of the people making the most money from the “clean” movement have very little idea what they’re talking about. Invited to justify their claims with hard evidence, many of them are now back-pedalling like crazy, while still using the opportunity to advertise their wares.
Ella Mills, the glowing face of the Deliciously Ella brand, with two bestselling cookbooks to her name, was, to be fair to her, the only one of these wellness gurus game enough to appear on the BBC’s recent Horizon documentary Clean Eating: the Dirty Truth, though she did have a new book out the following week. Mills was quick to distance herself from accusations of promoting faddy eating. Like the incredibly successful Hemsley sisters, who declined the opportunity to take part in the programme, she insisted that she was “not interested in making anyone feel fearful of food, scared of food, confused about food”. Yet between them the trio advocate cutting out gluten, grains, dairy, caffeine, meat, fish and “refined sugars” while promulgating crackpot ideas about “alkalising vegetables” and “flushing toxins”.
Deep down, most of us know the boring truth about healthy eating – more vegetables, less and better-quality meat and carbohydrates, and as little sugar and processed food as possible – but if forsaking that slice of buttered toast really did make my breakfast companions feel happier than they looked, then I can’t begrudge them the pleasure. With one NHS eating disorder specialist estimating that up to 90 per cent of his patients are following a clean eating regime, however, it seems sadly obvious that politics isn’t the only arena in which anti-expert feeling has the potential to be very dangerous indeed. I hope 2017 is the year we finally come clean about healthy eating. Everything in moderation, except scientific evidence – I’m no nutritionist, but that’s one thing I’m pretty sure you can’t swallow enough of.
Next week: John Burnside on nature
This article appears in the 08 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine